My name is Frank and I run a travel agency based in Bogota, Colombia. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please write them in our comments section. Thank you and have a great trip to Colombia!
Official language: Spanish
Area: Approx. 1,140,000 km2, comparable to Germany and France combined
Population: Approx. 49 million
Government: Presidential democracy
Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
Time zone: UTC-5
Telephone code: +57
Colombia borders the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean and is located in the northwest of the continent, with the equator running across the country in the south. Adjacent to Colombia are Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Peru and Ecuador.
The country is divided into six different regions, such as the Andes, the Caribbean lowland, the Pacific lowland, Amazonia, Orinoco and the islands.
With the equator running across the country, Colombia is in the tropical climate zone. Nevertheless, the climate is determined by the height above sea level. A dry climate can be found on the Caribbean coast. In the lowlands (Llanos, about 80% of the lowlands) there is a tropical climate with temperatures above 24° Celsius (75-86° F), at altitudes of 1000-2000 meters (3,300-6,600 feet) above sea level. Moderate tropical temperatures of 17-30° C (63-86° F) are found at altitudes of 2000-3000 meters (6,600-9,800 feet) above sea level. Paramos range between 12-17° C (54-63° F) in the Andes, from 3000 m (9,800 feet) above sea level. High alpine glacier climate has temperatures below 12° C (54° F).
There is a difference between the dry season from December to January and the rainy season from May to July, although this is no longer so pronounced and it can rain anywhere at any time. Often only a few minutes a day. The dry and rainy season also differ depending on the region.
As usual near the equator, the number of day and night hours is the same. The sun rises between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and sets again between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The twilight phase is very short.
Colombia is the second-most populous country in South America after Brazil. It is the fourth largest country in South America after Brazil, Argentina and Peru. About ¾ of the population lives in cities and metropolitan areas such as the Andean region and the Caribbean lowlands, the rest are only very sparsely populated areas. In addition to Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla have also developed into cities with over a million inhabitants. The fact that more than 2/3 of the Colombians now live in cities is also a result of the sometimes high rural exodus.
Throughout the country’s history, various ethnic groups met here. The indigenous were first. During the colonial period, the colonists arrived – mostly from Spain – and as a result, slaves from African countries were added. Today’s population is a mixture of all these groups, with the mestizos (descendants of Europeans and indigenous people) making up the largest proportion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Western Europeans and families from the Middle East also immigrated.
The indigenous groups number around one and a half million people and are divided into a good 100 ethnic groups, who live mainly in the highlands of the Cordilleras, in the southwest, in the Amazon forest and in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Colombia is the second richest country in terms of biodiversity per unit area and with its extremely high biodiversity and endless number of endemic species, genera and ecosystems. Colombia is one of the world’s megadiverse countries.
Colombia’s rich flora includes up to 55,000 different plant species, including 3,500 different orchid species, which corresponds to approximately 15% of all existing orchid species in the world. The wax palm that only occurs here and grows with a height of more than 50m in the Quindio department was chosen as a national tree because of its longevity and height. Colombians used their wax to make candles for the “Semana Santa”. Today it is protected and you can sponsor small wax palms.
The wildlife also shows its incredible diversity here. Here you will find over 1,900 different bird species, around 20% of all bird species found on earth, and over 350 different mammal species. You are particularly lucky if you can observe one of the rare Andean condors. Colombia contains 10% of all plant and animal species in the world, including tapirs, armadillos, sloths, jaguars, pumas, spectacled bears and monkeys. Several national parks have already been created to protect these many species. Guided tours offer great benefits for everyoneAnd these are accompanied by specialists who are very familiar with their area.
A total of five areas have been declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserves:
- Parque Nacional Natural El Tuparro since 1979
- Nudo de los Pastos since 1979
- Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta since 1979
- Santuario de fauna y flora Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta since 2000
- Parque Nacional Natural Old Providence since 2000
The only official language in Colombia is Spanish. The Spanish spoken here is generally described as very beautiful and pure and very well understood by tourists.
In addition, a little over 60 different indigenous languages are spoken, especially in the Amazon region, and only these languages and no Spanish are spoken in remote settlements. Also, there are the Creole languages on different islands.
Foreign languages such as English can be found in the larger cities, international airports and hotels. Hardly anyone speaks English in rural areas, small towns and regional airports. A few chunks of Spanish are therefore beneficial for tourists. The Colombians are very helpful and friendly and you still get to your destination.
Religious freedom is guaranteed as a fundamental right in Colombia. Above all, about 90% are Christians, of which about 70% are Roman Catholic. The rest are divided into evangelical, Jewish, Muslim minorities and a very small part belongs to the indigenous South American religions.
The age structure has a large proportion of very young people, around 36%. Life expectancy for men is 72 years, for women 79 years. The infrastructure is not evenly distributed, and offers are more concentrated in urban and metropolitan areas than in rural areas.
The country offers everything from early childhood preschool, primary school, and high school to university studies. Most children attend school for nine years free of charge, financially strong parents send their children to school even longer to enable them to start studying the Bachillerato (equivalent to the German Abitur). There are almost 90 universities across the country, around 30 of which are state-owned, and over 100 different technical institutions for higher education. Well-known universities are the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, Universidad de los Andes, Universidad de Antioquia etc., all of which are known for their high level of study.
There is no uniform culture in Colombia, as the influences with colonization and the slave trade have been very different over the past centuries. There are also isolated regions where mainly indigenous people with their own culture can be found. Nevertheless, about 90% of the population is Christian.
Large regional differences shape the diversity of Colombian cuisine. Fish dishes dominate on the coasts, while heavier dishes such as Beef Stews are cooked in the highlands. Meat is mainly eaten in the Llanos, the cowboy country. But everywhere you can find rice, potatoes, beans and plantains.
Arepas are very popular and are widely available.
A fruit compote is often served as dessert, as well as milk rice or cream cheese. Do not miss to try the many unknown exotic fruits, they are delicious. The best thing to do is to visit a market where you can try the fruit or freshly squeezed juices.
In some areas, unusual dishes such as the “Cuy” (guinea pig) or “Hormigas” (deep-fried giant ants) are offered.
As a tourist you should exercise caution and only eat cooked dishes, drink from closed bottles and stay true to the saying: “boil it, peel it or forget it”. In good hotels and restaurants, you can enjoy the food without any problems.
In Colombia, beer is mainly drunk. Wine is rather rare and mostly imported from Chile or Argentina. People like to drink local rum or aguardiente, a sugar cane schnapps scented with anise and herbs.
Without alcohol, the “Jugo natural” is, of course, the most wonderful drink anywhere. These are fruit juices from a wide variety of exotic fruits from Colombia and are freshly squeezed and sold on every corner of the street.
Then you also drink “Agua de Panela”, hot water with brown, unrefined sugar, sometimes refined with lime juice. «Chocolate con Queso» is also popular, drinking chocolate with a slice of cheese.
What would Colombia be without a cup of coffee? It is called “Tinto” here and is lightly sweetened or served black. However, one has the impression that the best coffee is exported and is usually somewhat disappointed with the quality served. The most renowned coffee producers now also have their own cafés in the cities and offer very good qualities.
Before the colonization by the Spaniards, there were long Indigenous high cultures in South America that traded with each other, maintained a very high level of skill as goldsmiths, and already around 4000 BC. made pottery out of clay. In contrast to other high cultures, different indigenous peoples lived in Colombia. There was the Muisca on the high plateaus of the Eastern Cordillera, the Tairona in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which built one of the oldest cities in South America – the Ciudad Perdida, the Sinu, in today’s coffee zone, the Quimbaya and other mystical cultures with stone figures and sculptures around San Agustin and Tierradentro with painted burial chambers left evidence for posterity.
In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci discovered Colombia. The country’s namesake, «Christopher Columbus», however, never entered the country. The very first colonies were in Santa Marta, which was founded in 1525, and in Cartagena de Indias, which was created in 1533.
The conquerors were attracted by the gold and emerald finds and soon the whole area was occupied and the Spaniards built their own settlements instead of the indigenous trading places.
In 1547, Colombia became a province of New Granada with Bogota as its center and belonged to the Viceroyalty of Peru. Cartagena de Indias, on the other hand, became one of the most important ports of this new world during the colonial period. Again and again, there were pirate attacks on this rich country and in the 17th century, even 80% of the world’s gold exploration came from Colombia.
In 1717, today’s countries of Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador were proclaimed as the Viceroyalty of New Granada with the capital Bogota as the center.
“El Florero de Llorente” (the flower vase of Llorente) is a term for a conflict between 1810 and 1819 that ultimately led to independence from Spain. It is a group of creoles that went to the Spaniard Llorente in Bogota and wanted to borrow a flower vase.His refusal led to a fight. In Europe, the powers were shifted with the appearance of Napoleon and at the same time a confident upper class formed in the colonies. With Simon Bolivar at the head of a liberation movement, he led one country after another to independence. However, his dream of a Greater Colombia, which unified Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama, soon collapsed again into individual states in 1830. Simon Bolivar died in Santa Marta, where a park with a museum is dedicated to him. His name still lives on in most places by naming the central square after him.
An economic heyday due to the large export of coffee made it possible to boost investment in the infrastructure and strengthen the state. At the same time, social tensions between the oligarchs and the mostly poor rural population grew.
In 1946, a civil war called “La Violencia” started between conservatives and liberals, which was then carried into the cities. This conflict raged until 1963 and killed about 200,000 people. Despite an amnesty, there was no peace and despite a system in which the two political directions in the government changed every four years, the gap between the parties widened. Left-wing politicians (FARC, ELN etc.) wanted to force a different political system and so various guerrilla groups emerged in the 1960s and 1980s. Corruption and mismanagement increased among liberal politicians, and the police and judiciary became increasingly dependent on the parties. Parts of Colombia were occupied by paramilitaries on behalf of the military and large landowners. At the same time, the drug mafia secured increasing economic power, which was only stopped in 2008 when the large drug cartels were broken up.
As of June 22, 2016, both sides agreed on a final ceasefire and signed it on September 26. President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for this, which the young population and students, in particular, saw as a sign of a conflict-free future. With the change of president, not all contract points were fulfilled and smaller parts of the FARC withdrew into the underground again. Since 2018, the country has faced another burden with the refugees from Venezuela, which according to unofficial figures is said to be over one million. You can see many of them begging in the cities.
Colombia has been a democratic republic since 1886 with a strong political position of the president. The people directly elect the president for a four-year period. He is assisted by a vice president and can dissolve parliament and force new elections. The Congress, or rather the parliament, consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The constitution was adopted by the people on July 5, 1991, and is considered to be very progressive. The people directly elect practically all offices and from the age of 18, you are considered an adult with the right to vote. Corruption and nepotism, however, repeatedly paralyze the judicial system and state administration.
Colombia is a member of the Union of South American Nations, the World Bank, the WTO, the United Nations and other international bodies. Colombia is politically divided into 32 departments and a capital district. A governor and a department council lead the departments, which are elected by the people every four years.
Here is the list of departments with the respective capital:
- Amazonas, Leticia
- Antioquia, Medellín
- Arauca, Arauca
- Atlántico, Barranquilla
- Bolívar, Cartagena de Indias
- Boyacá, Tunja
- Caldas, Manizales
- Caquetá, Florencia
- Casanare, Yopal
- Cauca, Popayán
- Cesar, Valledupar
- Chocó, Quibdó
- Córdoba, Monteria
- Cundinamarca, Bogotá
- Guainia, Inirida
- Guaviare, San José del Guaviare
- Huila, Neiva
- La Guajira, Riohacha
- Magdalena, Santa Marta
- Meta, Villavicencio
- Nariño, Pasto
- Norte de Santander, Cúcuta
- Putumayo, Mocoa
- Quindio, Armenia
- Risaralda, Pereira
- San Andrés and Providencia, San Andrés
- Santander, Bucaramanga
- Sucre, Sincelejo
- Tolima, Ibagué
- Valle del Cauca, Cali
- Vaupés, Mitú
- Vichada, Puerto Carreño
- Bogotá, Distrito Capital
It is divided into the army, the navy, the air force and the federal police. For men there is a general conscription of 12 to 22 months. Women can volunteer for duty. However, conscription is often undermined with various reasons and so there are mostly people from poorer classes in the military units. The armed forces report directly to the president and comprise approximately 250,000 people. There are also military police officers.
The state’s investments were partly replaced by increased private investments in transport, electricity and water supply. Since 1994, concessions for the trunk road network have also been awarded to private individuals.
Colombia has one of the worst transport infrastructures in South America. Of the approximately 113,000 km of roads, only about 30,000 km are asphalted. All of a sudden, the road can change from asphalt to unpaved roads and the reason given is the drying up of the source of money. Road traffic is also considered unsafe. Everyone drives the way they want to. So that you can enjoy longer car journeys, it is advantageous if your travel agency hires a reliable driver for you. Bogota ranks first in the world for lost time for commuters. This is 2 hours a day. This should be taken into account when planning excursions. Experience has shown that the average travel speed for longer distances can be around 40 km per hour.
In the cities, you can order taxis or Uber while in rural areas, there are Willys Jeeps or TukTuks, in some places motorcyclists are waiting for customers for the passenger. As a special feature, entire streets in Bogota are car-free on Sundays and public holidays and from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. only cyclists, skaters etc. are allowed to move around the roads.
Buses travel across the country and run between towns and villages. Different comfort classes are offered and bus stations can be found everywhere. In the capital, Bogota, the buses run in the TransMilenio system, which is operated by a private company.
There are three short tourist routes around Bogota for passenger transport and in Medellin, there is the Metro de Medellin, a modern rapid transit system. The rest of the rail network is approximately 3500 km long and is used only for the transport of coal and goods.
The large seaports with modern container terminals, such as Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta and Buenaventura mainly handle Colombia’s imports and exports. There are also cruise ships that stop in Santa Marta and Cartagena. From Cartagena, you can also charter sailing boats for the trip to Panama.
With the Aeropuerto Internacional El Dorado, Bogota has the largest airport in the country. There are around 1,000 smaller regional airports scattered across the country.
Various telecommunication companies operate an almost nationwide network for mobile phones. It is recommended for tourists to buy a SIM card, which can be bought in branches, kiosks and even on the streets.
After Chile, Colombia has the largest growth market in South America, with the help of the textile and food industries in particular. Blessed with large deposits of raw materials, industrialization will intensify and create an economically positive future. However, coca is still grown in Colombia because it enables farmers to make greater profits than with coffee and other agricultural products. However, the struggle against it continues. Colombia has seen a very high increase in tourism since 2017, which will certainly bring new investments and opportunities.
Export and import
Colombia has signed a free trade agreement with various countries. The most important export goods are coffee, bananas, flowers, high-quality emeralds, sugar cane, exotic fruits, tobacco, but also clothing, textiles, leather goods, petroleum and natural gas, coal, gold, silver and nickel. Mainly vehicles, iron and steel products, and paper are imported.
Unemployment is one of the biggest problems in Colombia. In some cases, employees receive wages so low that it is not enough to support themselves and poverty is becoming increasingly prevalent. Corruption is also exacerbating this – both in state administration and in private life.
The security situation has been greatly improved, crime has been restricted and the service sector is well on its way to developing. Above all, an emphasis is placed on the expansion of ecotourism, which helps to preserve the uniqueness and diversity of the country. In Colombia, some travel companies offer very different types of travel, from bird watching to beach holidays and water sports to cultural and archaeological discoveries, visits to coffee haciendas or adventure trips with or without a horse to the Llanos (cowboy country) with the possibility to see capybaras, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and large herds of cattle. There are wonderful courses for golfers all over the country and there are also many opportunities in the beauty sector, which Colombians make visible use of.
Holidays and fiestas
There are countless fiestas, regional holidays and many, including national holidays, are celebrated on Mondays. The Colombians usually celebrate with family or in groups, so that there are no more free rooms in many coveted places. Therefore, as a tourist, you should inquire beforehand whether everything is already fully booked.
Here are the most important national holidays
- January 1st: Año Nuevo
- January 6: 3 Reyes Magos
- March 19: San José
- Variable date: Jueves Santo
- Variable date: Viernes Santo
- May 1st: Día del Trabajo
- Variable date: Ascensión del Señor
- Variable date: Corpus Christi
- Variable date: Sagrado Corazón
- 17th-18th June: Día del Padre
- July 20: Día de la Independencia
- August 7: Batalla de Boyacá
- August 15th: Asunción de la Virgen
- October 12: Día de la Raza (Race Day)
- November 1st: Día de Todos los Santos
- November 11: Independencia de Cartagena
- December 8: Inmaculada Concepción
- December 25th: Navidad
The most important festivities in Colombia
The Colombians are warm and happy and love their fiestas. Everywhere in the country there is exuberant partying and dancing and the colorful country shows the zest for life of its inhabitants. Here is a small selection:
“Carnaval de Blancos y Negros” (Carnival of the black and white) in Pasto. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because it represents the culture left by various peoples and tribes and pays homage to the liberation of slaves.
“Feria de Manizales” (folk festival in Manizales), with bullfights, horse processions, dance and music. Choice of the coffee queen.
“Carnaval de Barranquilla” (Barranquilla Carnival) has also been declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site. Here the whole country celebrates one of the best and most famous carnivals worldwide. Lots of colorful processions, folk music and dancing for over four days.
“Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata” (Festival of the Legend of Vallenato), at which the best accordion player is chosen in various competitions. The music style consists of five different styles and every year more travelers come to listen to this music.
“Semana Santa” (Easter). As in other Latin American countries, huge exuberant festivals and processions take place, best known in Mompos, Popayan or Pamplona.
“Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro” (theater festival), which takes place every two years in Bogota. Since 1988 in the streets of Bogota, theaters, seminars, workshops, and the skills of the mostly young artists have been shown to the public.
“Festival Folclorico y Reinado Nacional del Bambuco” (folklore festival and election of the National Bambuco Beauty Queen in Neiva. Numerous groups show color, joy and rumba during parades in the traditional and fiery way. It is grilled and toasted with aguardiente, which is for cheerful There is a mood, and beauty queens are also chosen here.
“Rock al Parque” (international rock festival) in Bogota. In the Parque Simon Bolivar hundreds of thousands from all over the world celebrate this largest rock festival in Latin America, with famous international stars.
“Feria de las Flores” (Medellin Flower Festival). For ten days, Medellin wallows in a sea of flowers, colorful costumes and parades.
“Festival de Salsa” (Salsa festival in Cali). The best salsa dancers meet to show their skills and get in the mood for the big festival in December.
“Festival de Tambores” (Tamborine Festival) in Palenque de San Basilio. The Caribbean coast resounds with Bullerengue in the African-Colombian style
“Fiestas del 11 de Noviembre” (Feasts of November 11th) in Cartagena. A big festival commemorating Colombia’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1811, with parades and many events.
“Feria de Cali” (Cali folk festival). A huge festival with countless events such as Miss Colombia elections, bullfights, live concerts. Music groups come from all over the world and invite you to dance with merengue, vallenato, salsa, cumbia.
Even in pre-Columbian times, wonderful gold figures, jewelry and clay works were made, which can be admired in the Gold Museum in Bogota.
Today, various ethnic groups make hand-woven hammocks and handbags. Fernando Botero, who built a museum in Bogota, is the internationally best-known artist. In the museum, you can admire both his sculptures and his extensive collection of paintings by international artists. His voluminous sculptures can also be found in large numbers in Medellin next to the cathedral and in other cities.
In literature, the world-famous Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is known for his works “Hundred Years of Solitude” and also “Love in the Age of Cholera”, is particularly worth mentioning.
Colombian theater is one of the most modern in Latin America and attracts a lot of attention with the biennial “Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro” in Bogota. The neoclassical National Theater “Teatro Colon” in Bogota was inaugurated in 1892, later lovingly restored and can be visited.
The music in Colombia is heavily dependent on the existing population group. Many Afro-Colombians live on the Caribbean coast and prefer African rhythms. The traditional music in the Andean regions and Bogota is characterized by Spanish and pre-Columbian elements. Salsa is also very popular and the city of Cali is considered a stronghold of salsa worldwide. Internationally, the singer Shakira is best known.
Various festivals take place in the big cities, e.g. the Rock al Parque Festival, which is now the largest in all of Latin America. But classical music also receives great attention with compositions by local artists such as Adolfo Mejia. Colombia also has several professional symphony orchestras.
The UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Colombia
Colombia has seven UNESCO-recognized World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites and three masterpieces of oral, intellectual and intangible cultural heritage.
- Port, fortifications and monuments of the city of Cartagena, since 1984
- The historic center of Santa Cruz de Mompox, since 1995
- Tierradentro Archaeological Park, since 1995
- San Agustin Archaeological Park, since 1995
- The coffee-growing areas in the western and central Cordilleras, since 2011
World Natural Heritage
- The Los Katios National Park has been classified as particularly vulnerable since 1994
- Malpelo Island and nature reserve, since 2006
Masterpieces of oral, intellectual and intangible cultural heritage
- The Barranquilla Carnival, since 2003
- The black and white carnival in Pasto
- The Palenque de San Basilio cultural area, since 2005
The most read newspaper is El Tiempo. There are a number of state and private radio stations, some of which are linked together. Colombia has about 15 different TV channels, especially the telenovelas and family series are very popular and are also exported.
Above all, football is the most popular sport in the country. In 1964, the Bundesliga “Federacion de Futbol de Colombia (Fedebol)” was founded. In 2001, the national soccer team achieved one of the greatest successes with the title of Copa América, which was then held in Colombia. Another highlight is the historic 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires.
In addition to football, cycling is widespread and popular. Again and again, different drivers got stages and tour victories in the big races in Europe and triggered a great cycling euphoria in the country.
Inline skating has become known worldwide through Cecilia Baena (sportswoman of the year 2001). She not only won world titles, but also dominated the Pan-American championships for a long time, and won the Berlin marathon with 10,000 participants.
The national team also won the world championship title several times.
Riding has a long tradition and horses can be seen everywhere. In the valleys and plains, it is used as a means of transportationYou can borrow horses almost everywhere. Most fiestas have horse processions or even rodeos.
Diving is particularly popular in the coastal areas and on the islands and the underwater flora and fauna is hard to beat.
A special sport is «Tejo» and is considered a national sport. An iron disk “Tejo” is thrown into a metallic circle to pop the mechas (black powder bags). Whoever hits a mecha wins, if none is hit, the winner is the one whose Tejo is in the middle. Of course, the whole spectacle is connected with the profuse enjoyment of beer and aguardiente.
Behavior as a tourist
Leave your jewelry and expensive watches at home and don’t dress too conspicuously. Light clothing is popular in tropical zones, but it can still be cool in the evenings. In the high places, you need warm clothing, rain protection and solid footwear. Sunglasses or sun hats are an advantage, despite the low temperature one underestimates the effect of the sun in the higher zones above sea level.
Light and long clothes are especially necessary for the jungle areas, additional mosquito sprays are advisable.
Photography is possible everywhere – except for military facilities etc. – and if you want to lens off people, ask beforehand. Some ethnic groups reject this for various reasons.
Tipping is common and welcome. For waiters about 10% is common. Always check if the amount has not already been included in the total (note receipt). Tipping is generally expected in the entire service sector.
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